2013 Honors Convocation speech

Howard L. Hyman

CSUEB Distinguished Alumnus of the Year
Class of 1979 - Bachelor of Arts, College of Sciences
Major: Psychology - Minor: Business Administration
Executive Vice President, Fremont Bank

Sharks and Jellyfish

Delivered May 18, 2013 
At the California State University East Bay Honors Graduate Convocation

I’ve only been given 10 minutes to speak today, which is about all I get at home, so I am used to it. Therefore, it is with a huge heartfelt inclusion that I say “Thank You” to everyone who made it possible for me to get to speak today as this year’s Distinguished Alumnus. I am truly humbled to have been given this honor. However, as much as I have tried to understand it, there is a little voice in my head which says, “I am not worthy of being here.” I have learned over the years that this is true for all of us. I’d like to share with you about how I’ve learned to overcome this self-doubt to achieve my goals. It’s the difference between being a Shark or a Jellyfish.

When I think of a shark, I think of a magnificent creature that is strong, determined, and focused. It dominates the reef when it swims nearby and changes the behavior of the other fish around it. The shark is powerful and respected. It has a keen sense of radar. They are aware of their environment. They know what they want. They circle their prey before they strike with powerful force. There is a stealth like quality to the shark. You are never certain what their next move will be, but you know it’s not happenstance.

When I think of a jellyfish, I think of a rather fluid creature, one with some meager form of propulsion. It drifts at the whim of the tide. It has little influence against the powers of the sea. Success in life for the jellyfish is avoiding being washed ashore onto the sand of the beach to be left to dry up and die. It feeds upon the innocent passer-by which happens to enter its tentacles. It destroys its prey with deadly venom. The jellyfish lives upon the superficial layers of the ocean. It is beautiful and intriguing to watch, but it doesn’t have much impact on the ocean.

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, the shark and the jellyfish are metaphors for the way we think. The prey is our goals, our dreams, and our targets in life. The ocean is the world in which we live. We can approach our future as either a shark or a jellyfish. The choice is ours.

I am amazed at how often our actions in life are inconsistent with what we say we want to achieve; whether it is a job, a relationship, or a position of power from which to change the world. One only has to look on social media to see people saying how they want this or that, or how they feel the world should be ... but in reality, merely posting or talking about something rarely makes a difference. Our ability to create change lies in rolling up our sleeves and engaging in meaningful actions.

In my own life, when I was younger, I wanted to be in a long term relationship. I had a very well thought out plan to find the perfect mate by staying at home on Saturday nights with a bowl of popcorn, watching “The Love Boat” by myself. By today’s standards, I’d have been chatting online with someone across the country with whom I am certain would be the perfect mate if only we lived closer. Sound familiar to all of you single folks? I guess you could say that I should have been watching “Fantasy Island” instead of “Love Boat.” I was adrift in the sea of life waiting for that perfect person to magically appear in my life (or drift into my tentacles). Eventually, I stepped out of my comfort zone and met the person who was my perfect mate and has been my companion and confidant for 22 years.

Whether you are a shark or a jellyfish lives in your willingness to take personal responsibility for your circumstances in life. We forget that we are no longer children and that nobody can change our lives but ourselves. The magnificence of being human is that we get to choose to be a shark or a jellyfish moment by moment. When we become resigned that the world is a tide that will move us, like the jellyfish, we lose our effectiveness. Eventually, this leads to a toxic existence which succeeds in life by harming others with gossip, jealousy, and blame. We become passive and hope we can find someone to listen to us complain, instead of taking meaningful action to achieve our goals.

When you choose to be a shark, the world moves at a very rapid pace. Your dreams start to become reality. There will be risks, but they will be taken with pride and passion. You will become an inspiration, an unstoppable force causing others to take notice. In the world of human beings, these are the qualities of visionary leaders. They are focused, disciplined, resourceful, and goal oriented. Leaders, like the shark, do not stop moving.

When I decided 15 years ago to transform the culture of our company into an environment of unprecedented customer service and teamwork in the financial industry, I received lots of feedback. Comments like “Why? What are the measurements? What’s the purpose?” There is always a certain vested interest people have in keeping things the way they are. Change is scary. It can threaten people’s power and position in life. My best coach in life once said to me, “If you want people to listen to you, start producing results.” And so I did ... and the support from others followed. Today, I am very proud to say that our company is known as a financial services leader in customer loyalty. And by the vote of our staff, we have won several awards for being one of the Best Places to work in the Bay Area.

The power of the shark is being willing to boldly move forward when there is a little voice saying, “But I’m just a jellyfish.” This is a stinging and venomous way of thinking which disempowers us, but it is a way of thinking which can easily be overcome. You will believe what you are, and what you passionately pursue.

Futurist Alvin Toffler who wrote the book “Future Shock” once said, “The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” I would like to paraphrase and say, “The leaders of tomorrow are not those who have acquired knowledge and experience, but those who have learned to let go - of what they already know - to discover and create a future of adventure for themselves and others.” I had the opportunity to participate in a fire walk on 1,500 degree hot coals last year. I had to cleanse my mind of everything I knew about the dangers in order to succeed and achieve the unimaginable. I had to move across the coals with the quickness of a shark or I would have seriously burned my feet. A jellyfish would certainly have perished. I recently read a quote attributed to Margaret Shepard which goes: “Sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith.” This was certainly true as I stepped onto the hot coals.

What can I say to encourage you to take the leap?

In the words of Christopher Robin to Winnie the Pooh, “Promise me you’ll always remember, you’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

There will always be moments when you need to be more like a jellyfish. Sometimes it is good to step aside and let others find and discover their “Inner Shark” giving you the opportunity to log some “jellyfish time.” The point is that we have a choice.

Again, my sincerest “thank you” for giving me the privilege of launching this very talented group. I am humbled by the future you represent, the places you will go, and the things you will create. May happiness and success follow you through the rest of your life. Thank you.